About this record
This is a collage of newspaper cuttings, which include an image of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, a Yolgnu elder from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Wirrpanda was the first Indigenous person to have his case heard in the High Court. Charged with murdering a policeman, he had been sentenced to death. Since the crime was committed in the Northern Territory, any appeals made in the territory went straight to the High Court.
- Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda was a Yolngu elder and leader whose country was in eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. In April 1934 he was taken into custody in Darwin and charged with the murder of police constable Albert McColl.
- Dhakiyarr's case drew national and international attention to the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia. His case was preceded and followed by years of debate about the sufferings of traditional Aboriginals, particularly in northern Australia. Because Dhakiyarr's conviction and sentence were in the Northern Territory, the appeal was to the High Court. This became the first case of an Aboriginal Australian heard in the High Court. The Court's decision overturning the jury's verdict and the judge's sentence affirmed the right of Aboriginal people to a fair trial in Australian courts.
- The case, however, ended in tragedy for Dhakiyarr and his family. On 8 November 1934 the High Court directed that Dhakiyarr be released and returned to his country. Within 24 hours of his release from gaol Dhakiyarr vanished. No one knows what happened to him, but some believe he was murdered. Nearly 70 years later, in June 2003, the Wirrpanda family held a Wukidi or burial ceremony in Darwin, to liberate his spirit and cleanse those involved in his death. A Wukidi ceremony is part of Yolngu law, and resolves a conflict between tribes that have wronged each other.
- Dhakiyarr's trial and appeal were not the only catalyst for the important changes in Aboriginal administration later in the 1930s. Events of 1933–34 followed years of criticism of the federal government for failing to protect Northern Territory Aborigines, and years of vigorous attempts to improve the system of justice for them.
- Five years earlier, police retaliation against Aboriginals who killed a white prospector on Coniston Station in Central Australia drew national and international attention. The much publicised 'Coniston Massacre' was followed by public outcry over what many called a 'whitewash' – the police involved admitted to 17 Aboriginal deaths, but were exonerated by a Board of Enquiry.
- In the years following Dhakiyarr's trial, a number of other amendments to the Northern Territory Ordinance were enacted with the aim of improving the system of justice for Aboriginal people. The Australian Association for the Amelioration of Native Races (AAANR) was pushing for Commonwealth control to end the muddle of state Aboriginal administrations pursuing different policies. The first Conference of Commonwealth and state authorities to try to coordinate state policies was held in Canberra in 1937. AAANR also opposed encroachment on reserves by whites, including miners, argued that interpreters should not be 'police boys' and that Aboriginal women should not be forced to give evidence against their husbands. Partly in answer to these demands, the government amended the Northern Territory Criminal Code in 1937 to prohibit forcing any Aboriginal living as a 'husband, wife or consort' to give evidence against his or her spouse.
- The reforms that followed Dhakiyarr's case responded to long-term problems as well as to the specific conduct of Judge Wells at the trial. Dhakiyarr's case, the unjust court procedures and the consequences for Dhakiyarr accelerated the process of bringing long overdue reforms to the legal system.
Learning resource text © Education Services Australia Limited and the National Archives of Australia 2010.